A biotech startup called Koniku is trying to develop robots that can detect Covid-19 infections faster than conventional tests.
The technology fuses neurons with a silicon chip to create a “scent cyborg” capable of detecting odors ranging from explosives to pathogens.
Koniku’s first clinical trial began three weeks ago and will look at samples from patients tested for Covid-19 to compare the scent robot’s ability to detect the virus against traditional methods. Small internal tests have already shown that it can accurately detect the presence of influenza A.
“Our goal is to have a device that fuses synthetic biology with silicon and maps all the smells of human life on a global scale,” said Oshiorenoya Agabi, CEO and co-founder of the San Rafael-based company. , in California. “We should have a device in every household in America to screen for disease.”
Pathogens produce unique volatile organic compounds, fragrant fingerprints, released by diseased cells. These characteristic smells are the same biological clues that allow dogs to spot dozens of diseases. Finland tested the dogs’ ability to detect Covid-19 during a test at Helsinki airport last month.
Some researchers have suggested that using dogs could be cheaper, faster, and even potentially more effective at screening for the disease than methods like temperature checks, nasal swabs, and saliva. In July, German researchers showed that trained dogs were able to distinguish between saliva taken from people infected with the virus and those that were no more than 90% of the time.
Koniku’s device, the Konikore, is slightly smaller than a Frisbee and looks like a flying saucer. When proteins on her chip bind to a scent she’s been programmed to detect, cells amplify and process those signals using machine learning, and the device turns on.
In a recent field test in Alabama, he was able to detect explosives better than trained dogs. The test was conducted by law enforcement officials and aerospace giant Airbus SE, an investor and partner of Koniku that is working to deploy the technology at airports.
Koniku plans to conduct field tests with Airbus at Changi Airport in Singapore and then at San Francisco International Airport later this year.
“If a dog can smell it, we can,” said Agabi, who describes the Konikore as a “scent camera”. He imagines that the technology could be useful far beyond bombs and disease. For example, he said, it could digitize the taste of food, allowing the synthetic recreation of things like bacon.
Koniku’s merger of biology and computer technology – often referred to as “wetware” – is a growing field. The company’s investors include SoftBank, Platform Capital, Halfcourt Ventures, Changi Airport and the venture capital arm of Airbus.
Koniku hired Treximo, a biotechnology consulting and project management company, to conduct its SARS-CoV-2 trials. Testing of new devices is generally much faster and less intensive than testing of new drugs. Treximo said it expects this to be done with the necessary steps to apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in the first quarter of 2021.
“We know this device can smell explosives, but can we get it to pick up organic compounds in human breath to say yes or no does this person have SARS-CoV-2?” said Michael Stomberg, CEO of Treximo. “It’s a game-changer if it turns out to be valid.”
The devices will go on presale for hardware developers this week.
After Covid-19, Agabi imagines that with the company pursuing other illnesses, insurance companies might be inclined to cover the cost of a test, such as lung cancer. In the future, if successful, it could be used not only in homes, but for the massive detection of diseases and pathogens in public spaces.
“Telehealth is growing,” Agabi said. “Our goal is not another Zoom app, but to bring technology closer to people so that we can detect disease in real time.”